Reflecting on Our Practice: Collecting Evidence of Student Learning, Part 2
By: Virginia Ressa
When I wrote my blog entry last month, I didn’t plan on writing a follow up, but assessment is just one of those topics educators can discuss and debate forever. As educators, we each have our own personal theories and experiences that color our assessment practices. Even the language we use when talking about assessment can differ. Our professional lexicon is full of synonyms, maybe euphemisms, for assessment: test, quiz, written response, essay, performance, project, presentation, etc. You get the idea, right? At the essence of all of these tasks — whatever you call them — is the goal of collecting evidence that will tell us where students are in their learning.
I know the phrase “collecting evidence of student learning” is a mouthful; assessment and test are both a lot shorter and easier to use. So, what’s the difference? Why bother with the long phrase? The difference is in what kind of information we want and how we plan to use it. The term “assessment” carries with it a connotation of a singular event, while the phrase “collecting evidence of student learning” suggests a process of ongoing assessment that seeks to track student growth over time.
The purpose of assessment has traditionally been to assess students’ knowledge and skills against a set of norms or standards. We’ve given these types of assessments in Ohio for many years. Districts and schools use these types of assessments at the local level, too. For example, career-tech students know they’ve got to exhibit proficiency in order to earn their credentials. These types of assessments provide a snapshot of what a student can do at a certain point in time, not unlike your school picture from eighth grade. It provides us with important, but limited, information about who you were at that point in time — braces and all.
Each assessment event provides us with a snapshot of student knowledge and skills at a particular time and place. But, can one photograph show us a complete picture? Of course not. Take a minute and think about your high school yearbook photo. It provides a lot of information about you on the day the picture was taken, but the information is limited to that one piece of evidence. We know it doesn’t represent how you changed throughout high school, how you got taller or cut your hair to look like your favorite musician. It doesn’t explain why you chose those glasses and that tie. And, unfortunately, that one picture might not accurately represent you. Maybe you had a bad hair day or the photographer didn’t tell you when to smile. One snapshot can only provide a limited amount of information, and sometimes it may not be reliable.
In our classrooms, it is often more useful to think of assessment with the purpose of measuring student growth. Measuring growth requires us to envision assessment as a series of events over time rather than as singular, isolated events. What if we took a series of photographs over time? How would a series of photos give us different information than the single snapshot? When we have evidence we’ve collected over time, we can compare current performance to past performance to look for change, hopefully in the right direction. We can look for patterns of misconceptions, strengths and weaknesses or opportunities for acceleration — all of which can inform our instruction in order to meet the needs of our students.
If a snapshot is a single assessment event that measures achievement, then a series of snapshots of student learning is a process of assessment that encourages us to measure and respond to growth. Collecting evidence of student learning over time and in different formats provides us with more details about what students know and can do. If we only have that one photo of you in your high school yearbook, we have no way of knowing if the picture is reliable. Why weren’t you smiling? Was your hair always that long? Multiple pieces of evidence help us to identify and account for evidence that isn’t reliable: a misleading test question, homework completed by a parent or maybe just a bad day for that student. Each photo we take can’t possibly tell others all they need to know about us at that point in time, and no single assessment event can tell us enough about student learning to inform our instruction.
Ohio’s Formative Instructional Practices modules include a course on measuring student growth. Click here to access the Department’s Learning Management System, which is free to all Ohio teachers.
Virginia Ressa is an education program specialist at the Ohio Department of Education, where she focuses on helping schools and educators meet the needs of diverse learners through professional learning. You can learn more about Virginia by clicking here.